Zombie Ideas Are Killing Public Education

“Zombie ideas … are policy ideas that keep being killed by evidence, but nonetheless shamble relentlessly forward, essentially because they suit a political agenda.” Paul Krugman

Zombie Ideas!?!

Exactly! … Policymakers have been using zombie ideas to dismantle, transform, and restructure the public education system. But there is a mountain of evidence that the zombie ideas in No Child Left Behind didn’t show any appreciable improvement in student achievement. So why not end the zombie invasion killing our public schools, now?

Zombie ideas are hard to kill because they have already been killed by evidence! Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec

What Zombie Ideas?

The test-based, metric-driven accountability of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is based on a political agenda, not proven education reforms. Now, NCLB is called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) but the same policy ideas and political agenda remain in place. The same detrimental consequences persist because the aim and purpose of the law did not change.

Zombie Ideas in Education: High-Stakes Testing and Graduation Policies*

Solórzano (2008) found that the results of high-stakes tests used as a high school diploma requirement “show quite clearly that Blacks and Latinos (and English Language Learners) are disproportionately failing them, whether enrolled in Texas, New York, California, or Minnesota” (p. 312).

He goes on to say that students who do poorly on these exams “are viewed as the problem; they are retained, tracked, or denied graduation” (p. 316) and cites several sources for this statement.

Then, comes the most logical and obvious, yet often negated fact of this matter: “They are held solely responsible for their grades, when in fact, they may not have had equal chance of learning because of the unequal resources and opportunities at their disposal at their school site” (p. 316).

The policy of high-stakes testing that has led to multiple incorrect, unethical, and detrimental uses of test results is just one example of a zombie idea that needs to die —permanently.

Other Zombie Ideas That Just Won’t Die!

Choice and competition are market-based ideas whose theories have been applied to public education to transform and restructure our public system into a privatized system. So based on the idea of school choice as a reform, researchers** examined student achievement under this Market Theory  — with the demand side being “school choosers” and the supply side being schools. They did so while also cautioning that psychologists are well aware of the effect of “choice.”

Theory On the Demand Side:

“The simple act of choosing a school then might contribute to a family’s satisfaction with that school.”

Theory On the Supply Side:

“Decentralized decision-making itself might be beneficial to students. … This local control could lead to more efficient, locally appropriate use of resources, better alignment and camaraderie among the school personnel, and improved responsiveness to opportunities and challenges.”

But Overall:

“While there are isolated (and sometimes very impressive) success stories, school choice reforms have not proven to be unambiguously effective on the whole.”

Charter or Voucher: It Doesn’t Matter

“Much like the charter school literature, the literature on private school vouchers does not conclusively link the use of vouchers to improved academic performance.”

Existing Public Schools are Forced to Compete: True

“While most principals report competing for students, few report that they compete by making curricular or instructional changes that might appeal to parents. Instead, they are considerably more likely to report competing through outreach and advertisement.”

Choice and competition are zombie ideas that increase return on investment to the education industry — and the cottage industries of marketing, data analysis, and advertising. School choice is not a systemic reform. It is a market theory that doesn’t tackle the solutions we should focus on — those that strengthen and improve educational quality and opportunity FOR ALL CHILDREN.

Rising from the Depths of the Swamp: More Zombies or Real Reform?

While the political agenda behind the zombie ideas focuses the nation’s attention on “outputs,” the idea of focusing reforms on “inputs” keeps getting buried alive. Even though it is logical and obvious that learning requires specific inputs, that poorer communities have fewer resources, and that the schools that struggle to provide better education are located in areas of concentrated poverty — our laws remain fixed on Outcome-Based (output) Theory.

While federal and state lawmakers continually mandate higher learning standards, “service delivery standards” remain buried in history.

Yes, it is true. Once upon a time America saw educating its youth as a public service. We were going to set a quality standard for delivering that service. While we still hear the phrase “Opportunity-to-Learn Standards,” those pushing their political agenda to privatize the system kill that conversation. Their actions say they don’t care about all the nation’s children. If those in power really cared, they would have pushed for “service delivery standards” to support local school improvements.

Instead of bad policy ideas being killed by evidence, those with a political agenda are killing the public education system.

Zombies are hard to kill because they are already dead. But it seems to be common knowledge that to kill a zombie you must destroy its brain.

These zombie reform ideas —high-stakes testing, metric-driven centralized accountability, competition through charters and vouchers — don’t die because they serve a political agenda. It is the “brains of the operation” that we must expose and politically destroy.

Sources:
*Kern, Diane. Zombie Ideas in Education: High-Stakes Testing and Graduation Policies. New England Reading Association Journal 49.1(2013): 96.

**Loeb, S., Valant, J., Kasman, M., Increasing Choice in the Market for Schools: Recent Reforms and their Effects on Student Achievement. Forum on the Education Reform in an Era of Fiscal Imbalance. National Tax Journal, March 2011, 64 (1), 141–164.

The Fierce Urgency of Now

Spoken by Martin Luther King and repeated often, do the words “the fierce urgency of now” no longer stir our souls? Did they ever?

Why the Urgency NOW?

The urgency is the need for all of us to filter out the divisive political language coming at us from all sides. In this moment, we need to look back at what was once only a theory. Now our reality is that economic theory fostered a political strategy to supplant our constitutional republic with “a private governing elite of corporate power.” *Those pushing corporate control understand how essential it is for them to …

“…kill public education because it tend[s] to foster community values…” *

And market-based education reforms became the weapon of choice. But the role of political economist James M. Buchanan is only now being closely scrutinized. Buchanan’s theories explain much about the divisiveness destroying our schools and our nation.

“…[Buchanan] observed that in the 1950s Americans commonly ASSUMED that elected officials wanted to act in the public interest. …[T]hat was a belief he wanted, as he put it, to ‘tear down.’ His ideas developed into a theory that came to be known as ‘public choice.’” *

Public Interest vs. Public Choice

Public interest is defined as “the welfare or well-being of the general public.” It is a national goal clearly stated in the Constitution’s preamble — “in Order to … promote the general Welfare…”.

To “tear down” our assumption that officials are acting in the public’s interest is one thing. To destroy our union is another. That goal does NOT appear to be one of the aims of Buchanan’s original 1986 Nobel Prize winning work on “Public Choice Theory.”

In its announcement of the prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted, “Buchanan’s foremost achievement is that he has consistently and tenaciously emphasized the significance of fundamental rules and applied the concept of the political system as an exchange process for the achievement of mutual advantages.Tennessee Encyclopedia (James McGill Buchanan)

His “research program” ** centered on the belief that people make purchases (market choices) based on value. He saw the public making political choices they believed would benefit them. He viewed us as making choices based on our own “venal self-interest.” *

So he and his ilk developed what they called “non-market decision-making.” Finding that name “awkward” and not as appetizing to “free-market” thinkers, the groups’ organization and publications took on the name “Public Choice.” **

Choice or Coercion?

Some researchers believe that Buchanan’s Public Choice Theory began as an “optimistic conception” based on “unanimous consent of the people.” But he later adopted a more “pessimistic view” about “social organization” and people’s “intolerance” to entering into the discussions necessary to reach consensus on issues. Thus Buchanan’s emphasis morphed from “individual freedom” to the need to “enforce order.” ***

As Buchanan explained “Public Choice” to an audience (2003) …

Public choice, in its basic insights into the workings of politics, incorporates an understanding of human nature that differs little, if at all, from that of James Madison and his colleagues at the time of the American Founding.” **

Buchanan wrote that for public consumption. It’s a distortion of history, which is likely being perpetuated through institutions such as George Mason University in Virginia.* And in misrepresenting the American Founding Principles, Buchanan opened himself up to being viewed as a major manipulator in our historic fight against corporate control.

James Madison vs. James Buchanan 

As a key author of the Constitution, Madison left a record of discussions about our nations founding principles. Therefore, a better understanding of the American Founding political views can be gleaned from Madison’s correspondence with a colleague who Buchanan also admired. ***

James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 17 October 1788 (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd, ed., vol. xiv, pp. 18-21) …

“With regard to Monopolies, they are justly classed among the greatest nuisances in Government. … Monopolies are sacrifices of the many to the few. Where the power is in the few it is natural for them to sacrifice the many to their own partialities and corruptions.”

Madison went on to express his doubts about a government takeover by monopolies being skeptical …

“…that a succession of artful and ambitious rulers may be gradual & well timed advances, finally erect an independent Government on the subversion of liberty. … Is there not also infinitely less danger of this abuse in our Government than in most others? … with the power as with us is in the manyIt is much more to be dreaded that the few will be unnecessarily sacrificed to the many …”

It appears the expressed sentiment of that last sentence was taken to imply that corporations are the ones in need of constitutional protection from the masses. But Buchanan obviously took Madison’s words out of their historic time and context. Regardless, Buchanan did communicate to the public an association of his “public choice theory” with our nation’s founding principles.

****This quote is from the blog of libertarian economist, Daniel J. “Dan” Mitchell who believes Buchanan’s ideas are being misrepresented.

Same Old Fight: Big vs. Smaller Government?

Not Quite! Think about the following in relationship to the privatization of public education through “school choice” models. The allure of choice is deadly.

With our political choices being analyzed under market-based economic theory, it is assumed people make choices based on their own self-interests — first and foremost. We shouldn’t deny that as a truism. But when market forces through privatization of public services or goods come into play, competition for a limited supply will result in winners and losers. Always does.

We risk having children lose, or never develop, the safe and secure sense of belonging that defines “community values.” When all of us are seen as “self-interested players in the marketplace,” **** we are vulnerable to division. Competition for public services runs the high risk of destroying community values, but, that part of the equation didn’t seem to garner much consideration.

Instead, Buchanan saw the need to bring his vision to life by NOT focusing on who rules because who the public chooses doesn’t matter since elected officials don’t act in the public interest anyway. Therefore, this brilliant political economist focused on the rules themselves.

“… the Holy Grail was the Constitution: alter it and you could increase and secure the power of the wealthy in a way that no politician could ever challenge.” *

Buchanan found many willing partners.

“Subversion of Liberty”? Translation: Sabotage of Authority

What Madison saw as improbable under our constitutional republic — “a succession of artful and ambitious rulers” changing the balance of power — is exactly what is happening. Our federal government IS under the control of special interests. Many state governments are no different because too many of our representatives ARE no longer serving in the public interest.

The toxic divisiveness of party politics is permeating our communities. The principles of localism and populism, which formed the fabric of our founding documents, are being replaced by corporatism. Thus, when we can no longer reach consensus on the issues that matter, the authorities will step in and set the rules “to enforce order.” ***

This scenario should sound familiar to Baby Boomers. It was a shared American experience on many college campuses during the protests of the 60’s and 70’s. Martial law was declared in many places, which Buchanan supported (at Berkley***). And not to be forgotten were the killing of students by the National Guard. That’s about the time Buchanan’s vision of “unanimous consent of the people” *** seemed to change.

Now? Consider this.

“[historian Nancy] MacLean details how partnered with [Charles] Koch, Buchanan’s outpost at George Mason University was able to …  promote new curricula for economics education, and court politicians in nearby Washington, D.C.”

“… MacLean points to the fact that Henry Manne, whom Buchanan was instrumental in hiring, created legal programs for law professors and federal judges which could boast that by 1990 two of every five sitting federal judges had participated. ‘40 percent of the U.S. federal judiciary,’ writes MacLean, ‘had been treated to a Koch-backed curriculum.’” *

Supreme Urgency?

Think about the urgency demonstrated during the confirmations of both Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Ask yourself, why the fierce urgency?

Think about it. When changing the Constitution is still out of reach, CONTROL of the U.S. Department of Education and having corporate-minded allies on the Supreme Court are a handy pair of tools. Then it requires pushing appeals through the court system to the level of the Supreme Court. Once there, having enough justices interpreting our Constitution and rules in ways that favor corporations and the wealthy is almost as good as a “constitutional revolution.” *

This is no longer just theory and we knew this day was coming. Now …

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” MLK

Vote, of course.

Is that enough? Absolutely not.

References

* FROM THE LEFT ⇒ Lynne Parramore, “Meet the Economist Behind the One Percent’s Stealth Takeover of America”

**ORIGINAL SOURCE ⇒ James M. Buchanan, Nobel Laureate in Economic Science, George Mason University, “What is Public Choice Theory?”

***STUDY OF BUCHANAN’s EDUCATION SPECIFIC WRITINGS ⇒ Jean-Baptiste Fleury THEMA, Université de Cergy-Pontoise, Alain Marciano MRE, Université de Montpellier, Montpellier, Franc. “The Making of a Constitutionalist: James Buchanan on Education”

**** FROM A LIBERTARIAN VIEW ⇒ Daniel J. “Dan” Mitchell, former senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “A Taxpayer-Funded Smear Job of Professor James Buchanan”

 

Leadership & ESEA Reauthorization

For the quickest path to educational improvement — or to dismantling of the public education system — look no further than leadership.

If we want to improve schools, we need skilled leadership educated and experienced in school improvement processes. The question is, do the American people want those leaders trained by outside sources or developed within our own public education system? If we choose to go private, do we know what the leaders will be trained to do and how?

Joanne Barkin covered the private philanthropic efforts in leadership training quite well in “Got Dough: How Billionaires Rule Our Schools.”

Barkin explains “their vision” is “market-based.” Market-based education reform means seeing education as a commodity so reforms are based on demand, supply, and pricing. The vision was sold to us based on the assumption that higher test scores mean better education. The theory relies on parental and public demand for better “outcomes” as driven by high-stakes standardized testing.

The demand for higher scores has pushed the perceived need for charters, vouchers, higher standards, better tests, and longitudinal data systems to track every student and teacher. And when these pseudo-reforms fail to improve our lowest-performing schools, closure of schools and redistribution of students into the marketplace is now a reform. And leaders have been privately trained in these pseudo-reform methods. There is a school closure manual to follow!

The biggest private providers of leadership training?

“They” include Marc Tucker and his National Institute for School Leadership (NISL) and Eli Broad (pronunciation rhymes with road) with his Broad Center programs. But as Barkin put it, “both the Broad Academy and Residency are not mere programs: they are ‘pipelines’.”

Ken Libby and Stan Karp explain, “The [Broad] Academy’s revised program of study will aim to prepare leaders for positions beyond the superintendency of districts to include leaders of charter management organizations and state education departments.”

Libby and Karp quote from a memo they obtained boasting,

“We have filled more superintendent positions than any other national training program, and remain the only organization recruiting management talent from outside of education.”

Working from “inside” of education is Marc Tucker’s for-profit NISL. Tucker is a former Carnegie Corporation employee and current president of the D.C. think-tank the “National” Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE).

As scholar John M. Perella documented in “A Critical Study of the National Institute for School Leadership in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,

NISL launched with “$11 million in research and development grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Broad Foundation, the New Schools Venture Fund, the Stupski Foundation and NCEE”  (p 4).

“From 2001-2004, The Broad Foundation “kicked in 3.5 million’”and NISL began to put together teams of ‘the best and brightest’ for the purposes of creating a curriculum for NISL (p107).

Dr. Perella described his NISL training as an impressive combination of applying “militaryJohn-W.-Gardner-Quotes-2 and business strategies to educational issues.” But he questioned the foundational philosophy of the institution and looked for answers. His findings revealed “strong elements of both privatization efforts and neoliberalism within the NISL program.”

“From a critical perspective, the most alarming issue with NISL is in regards to the voice of the program. With voice comes power. Whose voice does NISL accentuate? Whose view of how public education should operate is expressed through NISL? Specifically, it is important to ask whose voice is not being heard.” (p137)

This particular “pipeline” has been working towards producing “leaders” for the market-based systemic privatization of public education since 1999. This for-profit has been granted your federal dollars.

The newest twist is having the House adopt “Pay for Success” as part of their grand scheme for ESEA reauthorization (Elementary and Secondary Education Act/ No Child Left Behind). This section of H.R. 5 is written to put taxpayer dollars into private teacher and leadership development programs. With the creator of the outcome-based theory leading the pack in leadership development, Tucker’s NISL has their documented success already on their website. But is this how WE want to judge “success” in education  – based on arbitrarily set “cut scores”?

Shouldn’t our leaders vision for schools represent OUR vision?

People NEED TO KNOW that much of what they see happening in public education – now – is a result of leaders that have been churned out through the Broad Superintendents Academy, the Broad Residency, and NISL. We have no way of knowing how many graduates of this neoliberal, privatization philosophy we have working within our public institutions up to and including our own U.S. Department of Education.

The alternative?

Here is its foundational philosophy:

A “principal’s leadership and attention to the quality of instruction” along with “teacher behaviors that convey the expectation that all students are expected to obtain at least minimal mastery” are two correlates of Effective Schools. “Effective Schools” are high achieving schools with a high percentage of their students from low-income families and a high percentage being children of a color other than white. Leadership matters in matters of instruction.

Another correlate is “a pervasive and broadly understood instructional focus”; this requires a leader that can communicate.

And effective schools do use “measures of pupil achievement as the basis for program evaluation,” which was the annual requirement in the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965.

We don’t have to reinvent any wheels.

The “National Education Leadership Academy Act” is written for us.

Written by Gary Ratner, Director of Citizens for Effective Schools

Written by Gary Ratner, Director of Citizens for Effective Schools

Many citizens and education policy leaders, particularly civil rights leaders, continue to hold on to the failed test-based practices of No Child Left Behind. But what they don’t seem to realize is that if we are to improve the learning opportunities for those students being left behind, we have to have capable, responsive, responsible school leadership in all our schools.

This draft is a detailed plan to develop school leadership aimed at strengthening and improving the public education system while addressing one root of the existing problem of unequal access to quality education – state and local leadership “capacity.” Developing leadership capacity is a responsibility that must be met.

We identified the states that have demonstrated over the last 13 years that they can’t adequately and consistently improve the schools most in need of help. I know; I live in one.

We have identified the same districts and schools over and over since my kids started school here in Idaho in 1992. It never mattered which standards, which tests, which label, or which accountability system we used, the same schools keep coming back on the list – if they ever leave it (which was usually when we changed accounting or moved kids around). Some states lack the capacity to improve themselves.

The larger institution of public education is capable of training quality leadership. But it lacks the capacity to meet our current needs because our lawmakers have been an instrument of privatization – our public dollars creating a steady stream of capital into private pockets. What now?

The country is in a position to build leadership capacity. With ESEA reauthorization moving forward in Congress, we have the opportunity to choose an alternative to the direction we have been going for the last 30 years.

Do we have legislative and executive leadership that will do the right thing? If our leaders will be guided by the People – which way will the People direct them?

Privatize the system or remain public; America’s Choice.